RFU suggests rise in injuries might be down to new laws
Melville says changes have ‘significant’ impact on number of tackles in games
The spike in the number of highprofile injuries sustained by Premiership players could have been a result of the introduction of global law changes which have led to a more “attritional” form of rugby, according to new research by the Rugby Football Union.
The RFU’S professional rugby department has compiled the data, which has been seen by The Daily Telegraph, in response to growing concerns over the trend that has led to many clubs being without their best players for long periods of the season. The RFU will show the new data to World Rugby, underlining the impact that it is having on the game in this country and also the effect it is having on the national set-up.
Nigel Melville, the RFU director of professional rugby, commissioned the “game trends summary data” in a bid to discover whether there was any direct link between the number of injuries and the introduction of the new laws in the northern hemisphere in August.
Professional Rugby Injuries Surveillance Project, a joint initiative between the RFU and the Premiership, is not expected to announce a significant rise overall in the number of injuries in comparison with the same period last season, although that may be due to late recording of them by the clubs.
The research confirms, however, that there has been a major change to the way the game is being played by English clubs in direct comparison with the first five rounds of last season, including a spike of 11.4 per cent in the average number of tackles per match (up from 150 to 167), the area of the game that leads to the majority of injuries.
World Rugby introduced 11 amendments, including changes to the ruck/tackle and scrum laws in a bid to make the game “more simple to play and referee as well as further promoting player welfare” with one of the key objectives increasing the amount of time the ball is in play during matches.
While the RFU data is restricted to professional games played in England and is based on only five rounds of Premiership action, Melville told Talk of Rugby that the data revealed the law changes were having a significant impact, including a spike in the number of tackles and first-man clear-outs of rucks. The average number of “involvements” in games, which can also increase the risk of injury, has risen by 8.8 per cent from 850 to 925
Melville says more players are being involved in defensive lines because of a change to the ruck and scrum laws as a result of a reduction in the contest for the ball at the breakdown and scrum.
“I started looking at the global law changes and how they were impacting on the game to see if anything different was happening this year with the new laws coming in that would indicate the potential for more injuries because of the way the game has been played,” Melville said.
“A few things came out of it. The ball is in play for longer but only by 26 seconds, which is not massively significant. Then we looked at different areas of the game and what we are finding that there is quite a big rise in ‘involvements’ – more touches on the ball for example, and 11 per cent more tackles being. Passes are also up.
“When we started to dig down a little deeper into that, we found that teams are doing different things with the ball.
“The contact area is virtually not being challenged and there are fewer people in it and more players becoming defenders. If you reduce the contest for the ball at the ruck, you increase the number of defenders which puts the defenders on the front foot and puts more pressure on the attackers.
“So, the attacking side is now getting more of the ball but also facing a greater number of defenders and we are therefore seeing more tackles. The increase in tackles is significant as it involves ‘double tackles’ and with greater line speed. And we found last year that it was not the tackled player that predominantly was injured, but the tackler.
“The number of steals has also gone down in the contact area and the number of counter-rucking has gone down but the number of firstman clear-outs has gone up.
“These are unintended consequences where you we are seeing a change for one reason creating a change somewhere else.
“What we are seeing is a reduction for the contest for the ball, more involvements, tackles because more people are available in the defensive line which makes it more attritional.”
Melville, who is also a member of World Rugby’s law committee, said that the amendments must be monitored closely and acted on if a link with increased injuries was proven with more data and in different countries.
“Our laws sub-committee [work] and all our information will go back to World Rugby and they will review it and go forward,” Melville added.
‘The contact area is virtually not being challenged and more players are being defenders’